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Humble man planted Sonoma County's soccer roots

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To some, for far too many under the age of 40, Joe Belluzzo is just a name, a name from another time, a name that doesn?t ring a bell, doesn?t even create an echo. Someone I heard who did a lot for soccer, that?s the lengthy explanation, that?s the end of the description, as if someone?s life could be so neatly capsulated, especially someone like Belluzzo?s.

Consider this column, therefore, an attempt to illuminate that which needs more light.

?When I grew up,? said Andrew Ziemer, 42, who once coached and played for Belluzzo, ?it was an honor to play soccer in Sonoma County. Now it?s considered a right.?

It is now an assumption, a solid given, that there will be enough fields, uniforms, players, coaches, teams in the area. For the teenager playing soccer today in Sonoma County to imagine otherwise, would be like today?s major-league baseball player imagining wearing woolen uniforms. In stretching his mind to think a 90-year old man spawned 6,000 soccer-playing kids in Sonoma County ? that was Joe?s age when he died Nov. 11 ? a teenager might blow a couple thousand brain cells.

The Soccer Father made this happen but I can?t use words like ?determination? and ?love? and ?passion.? Those three words have been so abused and overused in sports, they have lost nearly all their meaning. Consider, rather, the following example.

In 1965, Santa Rosa JC graciously allowed Belluzzo and his initial band of 33 players to use a field on its property.

There was an oak tree in the middle of the field.

That?s how disrespected soccer once was in this county.

?We played around the tree,? Joe told me two years ago.

The squeaky wheel, we have been told, gets the most grease and the evidence is everywhere in sports, that the only way to get someone?s attention anymore is to be flamboyant of mouth or body. The screamers on ESPN wage verbal war with the screaming Terrell Owens, who can appreciate the style of super baseball agent, the screaming Scott Boras, who won?t defer but will acknowledge the greatness of a former Warrior, the screaming Stephen Jackson.

Joe Belluzzo was the whisper who got everyone?s attention.

?I never remember my father ever giving a speech,? said Belluzzo?s son, Rick.

Joe never stood on stage, grabbed a microphone or entered a room to own it. Joe never held court, never pointed fingers, never dipped low in frustration to soil his message.

?There was a reverence you felt when you were with Joe,? Ziemer said. ?You felt honored to be around him. You wanted him to feel proud of you.?

Why? Because it was never about Belluzzo, and that may be the most difficult concept to grasp. He didn?t do it to get rich, famous or a free Grand Slam breakfast at Denny?s. No hidden agenda. No deal was cut. He was just honest and up-front ? and oh, how bizarre that reads today, when the most innocent decisions still create suspicion. Somebody, heck, everybody, has to be working an angle.

Not Joe.

?My dad felt soccer was part of life,? Rick Belluzzo said. ?It wasn?t just a sport. It was a way for kids to play together, a way for kids to learn how to share and get along. It was a way for nations to come together and, whatever their differences, they could put them aside for two-three hours. It was a way for people to learn how to handle life, to deal with adversity. He connected all the dots.?

Ziemer played soccer in Europe and said he saw a bunch of Joe Belluzzos on the sidelines everywhere.

?There were hundreds of guys puffing on cigars enjoying the game,? he said.

Just enjoying the game. Not adding anything to it but enjoyment. No overlays. No complications. Joe was like that, Ziemer said.

?Joe didn?t care much for how the uniforms looked or whether the field was top notch,? Ziemer said. ?He didn?t care about a lot of the fluff that surrounds the game. The sport has become so Americanized, Americans concerned about rankings and winning and scholarships. Joe wasn?t interested in that. He just wanted people to play and enjoy soccer. Lose yourself in the game. Play for the love of it. That?s what Joe was all about.?

Joe Belluzzo was a soccer lover and a soccer advocate. Reads simply but it wasn?t. Introducing a world sport to a county unfamiliar with and resistant to it, convincing people with his English not letter-perfect, enduring insults from players of other sports, playing on a field near Doyle Park that was purposely destroyed to prevent play, Belluzzo had all the reasons to back off and let soccer go.

He didn?t. And soccer players today in Sonoma County, be they age 5 or 65, should know the sport they so enjoy and take for granted is here because Belluzzo was. Belluzzo did his job so well that maybe the best compliment to pay him is one of anonymity. After all, who can remember the last time someone played soccer in Sonoma County with an oak tree in the middle of the field?

Joe Belluzzo removed all the obstacles.

And then, I would imagine, after hearing the previous sentence Joe would say with a humble shrug, ?Hey, thanks. That?s the best compliment I?ve ever received.?

For more on North Bay sports, go to Bob Padecky?s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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